For years I slept with a bible beneath my pillow and dreamt of a loathsome god.
I remember this in 2014, in a movie theater in Brooklyn. It comes to me all at once, as memories do—and I am startled. Why remember my faith now, after I have called myself faithless for so long? It has been a decade or more since I pressed creases into my cheeks with the corner of that holy text.
Christians are battling pagans in snowy landscapes and stony towns; the year is I-don’t-know-what, but the film was made in 1967, and is based on a book by an author who was murdered by Nazis. A translation of it does not exist in English.
Let this be the backdrop for my soliloquy.
I am taken, all at once, back to my earliest memory: I am eighteen months old, falling into a swimming pool, grasping through cerulean for my mother’s leg. My second earliest memory: of hallucinating devils on my parent’s bed sheets. My mother, years later, told me my childhood house was haunted and she’d never liked her dreams there—as if this were a comfort. Why would I, just a toddler, imagine demons in the middle of the night? I could not have been more than a few years old.
We were never a devout family; how my young mind had absorbed the concept of Satan, I cannot even begin to guess. Yes, I grew up “faithful”—even dipped in holy water (an event I cannot recall). But while many children might claim they grew up religious, I mean something different. We occasionally went to church—or at least I did, with my mother and brother. I cannot remember my father in that House of God. During Sunday school, the Lord was our friend and confidant. We were innocents always, and Hell was never put into words.
My life was not one of temptations. (On screen, the handsome bishop is being seduced by a pagan woman; before this, the virginal title character was ripped from the church to which she was promised, and raped). I was good. See: Jeva as Mary in the Christmas nativity scene, a baby Jesus clasped to her chest; Jeva as Passer-Out of Goldfish Snacks during Sunday School Break. We went to a Unitarian church, which my mother told me meant we didn’t believe in any particular denomination, just that we were united in accepting the existence of a god. There was a cross in our church, but Christ wasn’t the point, or not exactly. Rather, we were to be Kind and Respectful and Spiritual citizens.
A second chapter: On Fear of Flying.
I am seven now. I imagine angels with feathers large and luminous, lifting my airplane off the runway. The angels beat their wings as they carry the heavy metal vessel, and then tilt it back toward earth to return, gently, to the ground. If you ask God’s angels to carry your airplane, He will deliver you safely, my grandmother whispered, to calm my petrifying fears. In one nightmare, the angels cast down my plane, with I, a Lucifer, tumbling flightless to my doom. When I wake, sweating, I fight to forget. If I remember my dream, if these evil thoughts are heard by God, then they will come true.
I remember now, though.
Whether it is fear of death or fear of my god, each bump of turbulence during the many flights I take during my childhood will make me wish I were Good.
Once, we miss a flight entirely because I am sure my fear (“intuition,” my mother has called it under other circumstances) is a promise from God that the plane will crash. I refuse to board and refuse to say why, but am fully aware and ashamed that I am making a scene. The final boarding call finds my embarrassed father unable to drag me onto the aircraft. I beg protect me protect me protect me to whomever is listening inside my head. Outside, I weep tears of genuine terror. I am sure that we will hear later, on the news, of our aircraft’s plummet. But no news comes.
My attentive, adoring parents couldn’t have realized I was mad, that my faith was unspooling me. I mouthed my prayers silently so my mother and father could not hear. Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the lord my soul to keep if I die before I wake I pray the lord my soul will take. Lord, did you not see that I offered you my soul with open hands?
“Do you still go to church with your mother?” my aunt asks me, in a memory divorced from time.
I say yes, and we both pray for my father’s soul.
In Brooklyn, the Czechoslovakian film enters its next chapter: On the Soliloquies of Madmen.
Is God as indifferent as I am to these moving images, these brilliant plays of light and dark? Film, after all, is just shadows, and our lives are just flickers of black and white.
It is in these shadows that I struggle to make meaning. Somewhere outside of me, in the movie, a man follows a sheep through snowfields. He claims God guides his footsteps. Although this happens on screen, it becomes alive inside me—everything indistinguishable from my own experience.
I remember: My first bible arrives in the mail from my Catholic cousins as a birthday present. The book is for children and has big, doughy illustrations and simplified stories. I like Noah’s Ark the best, because of the animals, but I read the whole of it all the way through with a kind of intense devotion. The Old Testament is particularly entertaining, but the New Testament’s promise of Rapture is the one that spells out for me what I already know deep down—that darkness awaits me if I do not dedicate every part of my being to my jealous god.
It is around this time that I learn a new prayer. It is written on the back cover of my First Bible, where the blurbs go on normal books. The prayer reads: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. It becomes a mantra. I’ll repeat it in my head when I am skiing and the chairlift stops at the highest point; when traffic is bad; I’ll recite it on those dreaded airplane flights. It’s on my lips at anytime, to dispel suffocating fear.
For Christmas that year, I ask for another bible. If my parents are confused by my request—we don’t go to church anymore—they don’t show it. I unwrap my new children’s bible, this one for “older kids,” and it clarifies the areas that the First Bible left unexplained.
One particular section of the new bible chills me: the page on the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Their faces are pained and skeletal, their eyes dark with hatred. When studying my new bible, I avoid turning to that page—I memorize where it is so I won’t accidentally flip to it—as if by looking at the picture, I will make it manifest.
Part of me holds to my mother’s teachings: There is no such thing as Hell. A loving God would never separate us; we must all live with Love and Kindness and Respect for everyone of every race and religion.
But then I remember the doom the bibles tell me my god is waiting to inflict.
My best friend Clair’s family is more religious than mine (mine, after all, cannot be called “religious” anymore). Clair goes to church every Sunday, she teaches the younger kids at Sunday school, she plays the bells in the choir. She shows me her study bible and I am envious of its its highlighted passages, its sophistication.
I attend church with her. It is the only time we ever go together. I am eager to be at church again for the first time in years, but also conflicted. Adults smile at me. I smile back, awkward and uncertain. The student in me fears a pop quiz that will reveal I am an imposter in my faith. Clair is speaking to her church friends about the summer camp they’re going to go to together. I am left out.
Because Clair often sleeps over at my house, she knows my secret: that I cannot spend an entire night in my own bed. I still sleep in my parents’ bedrooms. Regardless of which house I’m staying at, I wake up in the middle of the night and shuffle to a sleeping bag in my dad’s room, or one half of the bed in my mother’s. I leave Clair asleep on the floor of my bedroom, to wake up alone the next day.
At eleven, twelve, thirteen, I begin keeping my bibles in bed with me, amidst my piles of stuffed animals. When I wake up, I see the violent marks they have left across my cheeks.
The film’s choir wails in a language I don’t understand.
On the car ride home we pass a new church that’s recently bulldozed a forested hill in order to raise a glass steeple above the tree line.
“We should go to church, Dad,” I say. My dad doesn’t respond for a moment. We can go there together, I think.
He tells me that he finds his god in a different way than within the organization of a religion.
I find a prayer book in the garage. It is clear that my god has led me to its discovery, because He prefers those words to the ones I am making up, and stumbling through, nightly.
Most of the prayers in the book are for specific situations, such as asking forgiveness, praying for a sick relative or asking protection over a beloved pet (this one I use on my cat). While I have a good memory, I can’t make any of the prayer book’s incantations stick. I have to look them up to recite them, which means possibly catching the attention of my parents.
It is a risk I’m willing to take. My obsession has turned darker. I read books about what the world will be like when the Believers are taken, and the rest are Left Behind. Fire, disease, Good and Evil. Come Judgment Day, I do not want to see those Horsemen.
Again and again I think, If God is Love, then why am I so afraid of him?
Are these the confessions of a madman? Was I ever truly faithful, or was this all some juvenile obsession? Have I ever actually been faithless; was this devotion ever outgrown? Is not my fixation the definition of insanity?
If there is no God, then who is listening to me now?
We drive past two men in suits, on bikes.
“Where are they going?” I ask. It’s midday, so I add, “They look like they’re dressed for work.”
My dad checks his rearview mirror. “Oh, Mormons. They’re going door-to-door to talk about God.”
“Kooks,” I say.
This is how it begins.
Devotion pulls away from me naturally, like the shifting of the flood tide to the ebb. Like bloodletting. My loss of faith is remembered in the form of a diamond cross.
My aunt visits us from Tennessee. She brings with her a gift for me. Staring down at the black velvet box and the silver cross necklace inside, a diamond (I have never owned a diamond before ) sparkling at its crux, I feel my stomach drop. I mumble a thank-you that I hope sounds sincere.
The cross makes my obsession public; if I were to wear it, it would define me to everyone. I don’t want my secular friends to think of me that way. I don’t want my unreligious parents to think of me that way. I don’t want to think of myself that way.
Later, my mother is cleaning my room and finds the box with the necklace in it. She holds it up and says, “Your aunt gave you a beautiful cross, and you never wear it.”
“I don’t believe in God that way,” I say, my voice breaking. I gesture at the crucifix to explain myself; I realize my words are true. That cross—that is not my god.
“That’s fine. You don’t have to wear it,” my mother replies.
It seems so simple, but it isn’t. It won’t be for many years.
But years pass. I am now attending the Least Religious College in the United States. It was not a conscious decision; I didn’t even know the fact until my roommate told me—as if I had been drawn to a place that would reinforce my determination to be unfaithful.
Even so, my first semester I choose to take a class on Genesis as literature. One of the first things we are asked is, Have we read the Bible?
Yes, I answer. But it has been a long time now. I buy a brand new bible with a scholastic cover to use in the class.
Of all my courses, I struggle with the class on Genesis the most; I cannot remember simple things, like the names of the rivers that flow out of Eden. I fail quiz after quiz. My professor expresses concern, and only by midterm have I acclimated, pulling my grade up to a B.
While we very well might be the Least Religious College in the nation, my roommate—of all the possible roommates I could have had—is the daughter of two pastors. She wears a cross around her neck, and a purity ring. She fascinates me; although I’m wary of proselytizing, she helps me with my Genesis homework. “You can remember the name of the mountain in the Sacrifice of Isaac because it is my name, too.”
That spring, my roommate watches her church’s Easter service over a live stream on her computer. I sit on my bed, eating chocolates, watching her.
Another college friend is Jewish. She has been to Israel, and shows me the pictures. There is dust and sand and tall buildings, but also something I’ve been seeking my entire life: a community? An acceptance of faith? “I want to go!” I say, over and over again.
Perhaps because of this enthusiasm, I am invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with her. Dipping apples into honey, I confess earnestly, “I wish I were Jewish.” Moments later I amend, “For the fun holidays.”
The pagan woman in the film raises a rock above her head and crushes the skull of her lover, the bishop, for he has gone mad.
And now the climax on screen: a final, bloody war between the Christians and the pagans. In my story, it is the final battle between my faith and faithlessness.
It is quiet in this crowded theater, but inside I am raging.
I know you can hear me, Lord, and I will speak.
I have dinner in New York, a few weeks before the film in Brooklyn: my father, brother, grandmother, aunt and boyfriend are at the table with me in the West Village. My brother’s homosexuality is unnamed lest it be called sinful by my Christian grandmother and aunt. But they have their surprises, too. “I don’t believe in evolution,” my aunt explains over dessert.
At first I’m unsure if she’s even said what I think she’s said. I’ve never actually met a creationist, or rather, never realized I knew one. I don’t say anything in response. Instead, I try to make eye contact with my boyfriend across the table, but he hasn’t heard. My aunt’s eyes, though—those I cannot meet.
My aunt’s name is Jeva, too. Hearing her speak, blinded by faith, is like watching footage of the motions made by an alternative self. I don’t believe in evolution. Is that sanity? Was I ever a hairsbreadth from saying those things, and believing them?
Finally, the present. The theater in Brooklyn, where I claim I am not ashamed of my faithlessness.
I watch the head of a sheep drop from my hands and roll down a mountainside. I am a distant witness, seeing this happen in the movie too. One thought linked to another to another. The faithful and faithless; I have been both, I am both, I don’t know what I am. I have lost the sheep, my guide. I’ve let it be murdered, let it fall from my open, offering palms. I am not ashamed of my faithlessness.
It is only while watching this movie, this black-and-white Czechoslovakian film from 1967, that I realize I am not ashamed of my faith anymore, either.
I don’t know if I believe in anything. Twenty-one years old, and I am haunted by my childhood god. I cannot commit to being a disbeliever, but I cannot fathom a divine reckoning in which I am cast down. I’ve tried so hard to be Good. I’d forgotten how hard I’ve tried.
And I realize this: I cannot be both faithful and faithless at the same time. My speech—this speech—seems to be nothing but madness. So I swear to you, these final words will be the truest I speak: Come Judgment Day, I will be afraid. But I will not be ashamed.
Credits. Lights. I leave the theater, the same as I came.